Dispatch from Paris: Beware of the Blind!

By: Catherine Kudlick A street sign on a pole reads "AVEUGLES", the French word for the blind. The triangle-shaped sign is filled to capacity with a truly giant exclamation point. Warning sign reads "THE BLIND" in French. Photo Credit: Cecile Puretz

Walking through the lobby of the Association Valentin Haüy, France's leading organization for helping blind people, I experienced a kind of whiplash. Paternalism looms so large that it's almost funny, until you realize that real people live and work with this every day. The second you walk in the door, you feel something sad and forgotten, people shuffling around as sighted helpers offer vague rays of hope to the afflicted. Right in front is a street sign that says it all: "beware of the blind!" Indeed!

Yet it turns out blind people are HOT in France these days, at least when it comes to books. This is thanks to two recent mainstream publications, or actually three. One is a memoir by Jacques Semelin, a respected, super-productive blind historian, Je Veux Croire au soleil  (I Want to Believe in the Sun). This is a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2007 memoir, J'arrive où je suis étranger (Arriving at a Place Where I Am a Stranger). He's been making the rounds of France's top media, including television and radio programs.

Then there's the successful mainstream book published in 2015, Le Voyant (The Visionary) by the sighted journalist Jerome Garcin, a biography of Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971), the amazing blind resistance fighter who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Garcin has managed to add real substance and depth to Lusseyran's already incredible account *Et la lumière fut* (English trans: And There Was Light). The success of Garcin's book inspired a well-known French publisher to re-issue Lusseyran's book, which previously had languished because the original press focused on spiritual literature. (The 2014 English edition is from a New Age press, which means few American academics know it either.)  To be sure, it's a spiritual book, but it's far from trite or cloying. When I discovered Lusseyran back in the 1990s I fell deeply in love with the book and the man who wrote it. I haven't really recovered. (Lusseyran is so popular in France that a one-day scholarly symposium to be held at the end of this month is already full.)

Lusseyran and Semelin come from a distinguished lineage of smart French blind men here and here and one remarkable blind woman. Remember too that Louis Braille, who invented the tactile language that bears his name, was French. Thanks to philosopher Denis Diderot's 1749 transformational Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See, all of them came into a world where people thought the blind should be educated. Whether we realize it or not, today's blind Americans have more opportunities because of French writers.

Amazingly, you can get all three of these books almost anywhere in France, including the airport, and it wouldn't be impossible to imagine asking the person at the counter to check in back for a copy of Diderot too. Even if it wasn't on sale, they'd likely know who you were talking about.

Though the idea of blind people playing an important role anywhere in France is unthinkable, and we still have a ways to go in the US, I'm hopeful. Books such as these in France, along with the opening of San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired's mind-blowing new facility designed by and for blindfolk (check out this blog post about the building by our Associate Director) will one day eclipse places like the dreary Association Valentin Haüy. It's already time to proclaim "Beware of the Blind!" not with shame but with pride.